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Science behind habits and how to form new ones

January 13, 2019

The biggest myth of habit-forming is that its down to willpower. Actually, habits are created by repetition. This is the science behind habits and how they’re created by our neural pathways.

The language of habits

As someone who has always been more of a fan of instant gratification rather than working towards something, I’ve always assumed I lack enough willpower to get into good habits. I’ve told myself I don’t have enough moral fibre. That extra glass of wine? Yes, please. Fancy skipping a yoga class and going for dinner? Where do I sign up?

This is of course nonsense and outlines how little we really know about what habits are. We either tend to think of habits as goals we want to achieve like learning the piano and going to the gym or the language shaped around them is really negative. Drug habit is used instead of drug addiction or a 20-a-day habit when describing a smoker. We are completely confused as to what habits are.

What are habits?

The reality is habits are the thoughts, actions and behaviours we do every day without generally thinking about it. We brush our teeth, cross over roads and navigate our way to work semi-subconsciously because we have built up the right habits that enable us to do so.

Habits also include the self-beliefs and thoughts that influence what we do, our behaviour and the actions we take. Self-confidence is a habit, as are so many of the thoughts and ideas we have about ourselves.

The science behind habits

All our habits start with a psychological pattern called a habit loop. Our brains are given a cue, which tells your brain to go into automatic mode and start acting out a routine behaviour or thought process. Our brains are then given a reward which is what helps it to keep remembering the habit loop in the future. The reward might be something as small as seeing the green man and crossing the road.

The habit of making part of the brain is called the basal ganglia, which is where our emotions and memories and pattern recognition are developed. Our decisions are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. However, as soon as a behaviour becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain becomes less active. This means we can do routine behaviours like brushing our teeth and crossing roads without being fully aware of what we’re doing. The basal ganglia takes over and we carry out routine tasks without thinking and use our brain capacity for something else.

Creating new habits

Scientists say it takes anything between two to eight months for a habit to become fully ingrained. This means there is (sadly) an element of commitment needed in order to form new habits. I’ve really found the best way to form good habits is to prepare in advance and make sure you have everything you need. Otherwise, tiredness sets in and it’s too easy to forgo healthy eating for a takeaway or skip a class you may have planned.

However, one way to shake up your basal ganglia is to try switching around your typical day. So, take a different train to work or walk a different way home. We are all creatures of habit (pun intended) and sometimes all we need is to be more conscious of our thoughts, behaviours and routines.

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